I inhale slowly, trying to calm my pounding heart but I feel suffocated.
"Ammi, I really don't know what you're talking about," I lie. Well, it's not exactly a lie. She may be thinking about Tariq, but she may not be. Then again, what other boy do I hang out?
"So, you think I'm making this up?" she asks, her hand on her hip. "Tell me exactly where you were yesterday after school." I avoid meeting her eyes. I'm a terrible liar so I decide to tell the truth.
"At the park." It was a dumb idea, I know. The weather was gorgeous and I had a childish desire to go on the swings so I persuaded Tariq to join along.
"With who?" she interrogates.
I decide to play innocent. "Ammi, I don't like your tone. I was with Amy. How can you accuse me like this?"
"You weren't with anyone else?" she asks, her brows coming together with that motherly expression.
"Ammi, I always listen to what you say...you know I'm not that kind of girl. It hurts when you treat me like this. And Humza? You never tell him anything. Why me?"
I sniff, wiping away fake tears.
"Oh, Iman. You always bring it back to Humza. You're older, he's still young."
"Oh yeah? He's still five, I know," I scoff.
"Look, maybe Khala is mistaken, but tell me the truth, Iman--"
"Khala? This is about Khala? She's telling you fake rumors about me?" I yell. Anger rises in my throat for Khala. How dare she? She is not my mother and she has no right to pry.
"Just tell me, you weren't with a boy, were you?"
Instead of answering my mother's question, I'm thinking of how to seek revenge on Khala. She's put me in this misery, after all. And Mariyam--had she told Mariyam too?
"Are you listening to me?" My mother is not going to give up so easily. It's a matter of our family reputation more than anything else.
"Ammi, how can I control who goes to the park? Amy and I weren't the only ones there. There were a bunch of other people, kids, boys, everyone. But that doesn't mean I purposely went with a guy--I just can't believe this!"
I storm out of the room, hoping she buys it. It's an awful thing to do; I don't want to lie to my mother. But she would never understand. If I told her how I felt about Tariq, she would never console me--she'd freak out before even giving me a chance to explain. Who knows what the consequences would be? Maybe she would have me transfer to another school, or worse, be home-schooled. Or upon Khala's suggestion, she'd marry me off to some F.O.B. for good. I shudder at the thought just as she comes in behind me in the kitchen.
"Iman, look. I have a right to know, that's why I asked. Especially since your Khala just told me over the phone she saw you laughing with a boy yesterday."
"Laughing with a boy? Is it a sin to laugh when there are boys around, Ammi? I don't know why Khala is so concerned...she just doesn't like me and wants me--"
"Enough. She's your elder and deserves your respect. Anyway, I'll let her know what you told me but from now on, you need to be careful, Iman. Today, it was her. Tomorrow, it could be someone else."
"What? So you're trying to say I can't even go to the park now? Ammi, what is this?" I cry, but she has already left the room. I'm angry when all I should be feeling is relief--relief that I was able to escape without any scars.
We are on the painting unit now in Mr. Hesser's art class. It's a relief that the face sketching unit is over, especially after having Laila and I debate with him about how we wanted a different assignment.
Art is my favorite class. Not that I'm much good at it, of course. But because it's relaxing. Mr. Hesser only lectures for five minutes at the beginning, then lets the radio go on in the background while he lets us do our art. Laila, Tariq, and this other guy sits at our table and the fifty minutes often pass by without a single glance at the clock.
"Iman, why are you painting a shoe?" Tariq asks me while I wipe the sweat off my forehead. I am awful at painting.
"Ugh, that is not a shoe!" I feel offended; a vase doesn't have much resemblance to a shoe, but maybe he's right. I shove him on the shoulder anyway with my free hand.
"Ouch! You have some strong hands, woman," he says, but I know it hasn't hurt him. Laila makes eye contact with me and her face is glowing like she's the one in love.
"Oh, this is nothing," I tease and Tariq feigns a scared expression. "You haven't seen me wrestling with Humza."
"Better watch out, Tariq. Don't get Iman upset," Laila warns, winking at me.
A little while later, Tariq leans over to take a closer look at my painting so far. He's inches away from me and I notice the small hairs on his chin. I've become so comfortable around Tariq but there are times like these when he leaves my heart pounding.
"Don't ever become a painter," he says, slowly turning towards me. There's some pink left on the paintbrush I'm holding and I quickly wave it across his right cheek.
"Hey! What the--" he tries to grab the paintbrush from my hand but ends up touching my waist instead. I almost gasp but Mr. Hesser is a table away and eyes us like You're having way too much fun, get to work.
My cheeks feel hot and Tariq doesn't bother to wipe off the paint off his face. Five minutes before class is about to end, we start cleaning up. I'm at the sink when Tariq comes beside me, but he doesn't say a word.
"What?" I ask, unable to keep quiet.
"I'm waiting for you to wash out the mark you left," he says softly.
"Tariq!" I hiss. "Wash it yourself!" I quickly go back to my table, daydreaming what it would be like to do what he just asked me to.
"You guys are definitely hitting it on," Laila chirps softly, only so that I can hear.
"Laila." I give her a stern look.
"What? Can't wait to tell Anum and Farah how naughty you are, flirting with--"
"Don't you dare! Farah will freak and I am not flirting."
"Oh really? And when did Farah become your Mom?" I know Laila is just kidding, but there is some truth in her words. I've been very bold around Tariq. I guess that's what happens when you get close to someone. And about Farah, well, that's the reason why I didn't bring up Tariq during lunch the next day, but he always comes up anyway.
"So I just found out my cousin is getting married to Tariq's second cousin," Anum announces. My ears perk. Oh man, can I be invited to the wedding too?
"How?" Laila asks.
"I was chatting with him last night and..."
I couldn't focus on what else she was saying. Only the first couple words stuck in my head. What was Anum doing, chatting with Tariq?
"Hey Iman, can you come with me for a sec? I needed help with this assignment we had," Farah interrupts my thoughts.
"Huh?" I ask.
"Just come," she says and she takes me by the arm so I have no choice. It's when we are down the hallway, away from all the noise that I realize what she's up to.
"Iman, I know you're not going to like .what I have to say but I'm gonna say it anyway. You're my friend, that's why."
She looks so earnest that even though I don't want to listen, I do and then make a mental note to ask Anum about that wedding she was talking about.
"Look, I know when you're in class with Tariq, you don't have much of a choice, but I really think otherwise, you should stop hanging out with Tariq. Just imagine--"
"You've told me this before, Farah and I don't think there's anything wrong with--"
"Do you honestly think it's okay, just laughing and flirting like that with him? You were always the one to stay away from guys and suddenly you're..."
Now, I'm angry. She has no right to accuse or interfere. "Since when did I have to ask your permission to do something? I never asked you to be my mother," I say through clenched teeth.
"I'm not," she says, a look of hurt evident on her face. I roll my eyes and avoid her gaze. "But if your mother knew, she would be so upset..."
"Farah, I just don't understand. Just because no guy has given so much as a glance your way, why do you have to ruin it for me?" I blurt. The words are out of my mouth before I can stop them. Tears spring in Farah's eyes as she stares at me in shock. I look away, a part of me wanting to embrace her and say how sorry I am. But my feet are glued to the floor.
"You've changed a lot. I've lost my friend, Iman. I really have," she manages to say quietly.
"Okay, then. Let's end this friendship crap," I say before walking away. I feel ugly in the inside, but there is no helping it. I've done what I've done and there is no turning back.
After my last class, I meet Tariq at his locker. This has become our meeting place for a while now. Sometimes, a couple of his friends hang out with him and I just wait for them to leave. Being around a lot of guys isn't something I'm used to. Being around one is definitely enough to take my breath away.
"Wanna go for some ice cream?" Tariq asks, swinging his locker door shut.
"Ooh, yum. I haven't had some since the last family picnic party, I think." I'm still feeling pretty glum after my fight with Farah.
"Lemme guess, your mom?" he asks as we walk side by side down the stairs.
"You bet." But then I see him grabbing his car keys and I'm wondering why. "Wait, aren't we going to the ice cream parlor in the corner over there?"
"I'm so tired of that place. I was thinking Oberweis."
I stop walking. Suddenly, Ammi's words echo in my head. "What? You don't...feel comfortable in the car with me?" Tariq asks.
I shake my head quickly. "No, of course not. I just...I remembered I had to take Humza to his friend's house, but..."
"But, you're such an awesome sis, you're not going to say no to him, right?" Tariq asks. I'm trying to discern the look on his face. Is it frustration, hurt, or something else?
"Tariq, you're not upset, are you?" I venture, placing my hand on his. It feels so good I don't want to take my hand away.
"A little bit, Iman. I thought you'd give me some time, you know?" he asks. I can't figure if its his words or the way he is caressing the top of my hand with the pad of his thumb that's making me all hot and confused.
"Okay, I promise. The next time you plan something, I'll definitely come," I manage to say and he gives me one of those cute smiles.
"Promise," I assure him. The next thing he does makes me turn dead still. He puts his arms out, waiting for me to step towards him. Okay, I've dreamed of embracing him, but...really? I never thought he'd actually want me to. I can't bear to think what he's thinking as I stare at him like some dumb clown so I sheepishly step towards him.
The moment we're touching, my heart's soaring I'm scared he can hear it. It's a little awkward at first, but then I fit my face into the crook of his neck and inhale the cologne I've become so familiar with. I shut away all other thoughts, embracing the moment and then we abruptly let go of each other since we're not the only ones in the parking lot.
"I'll see you tomorrow then?" he asks, tilting his head slightly. He's so cute I don't want to stop looking at him.
"Of course," I say, a little flustered.
I can't stop smiling, even when reaching home and watching Rishta with Ammi instead of doing my homework.
"What are you so happy about?" Ammi asks.
"Oh, I was just thinking of Mariyam," I reply, having rehearsed it cause I know she'd ask me. "She's so happy, getting engaged to Umair."
"Masha'Allah. And well, don't worry. It's not going to very long until we start finding someone for you too."
My eyes widen in horror, but Ammi's are glued to the T.V. screen, where everyone is dressed really fancy for a mehndi party.
"Ammi, I'm still in high school. Please." I'm literally begging her, but Ammi just smiles and says okay.
I let my head lean against the soft cushion and close my eyes. There's a romantic melody playing in the drama serial and I start humming to it. I'm wondering how long I can keep this up, but then decide to stop worrying and just live in the moment.